By Todd Johnson
Out of all the positions in the breakdown series, relief pitcher is the most unpredictable. I don’t think anyone foresaw the phoenix-like ascendance of Dillon Maples last year to go from class A all the way to Chicago. One pitch can sometimes be the difference.
I went back-and-forth on how to organize this breakdown. First I was going to rank what I thought were the top 5 arms and then list of some potential breakouts. Then, I thought I had a great idea of putting them in categories until I thought about it some more. Then I went back to rankings. But after sifting through each affiliate, I began to wonder out loud how much more time the Cubs are going to give some of these relievers a chance to be a Cub. As a result, I wound up with four categories.
Kind of a Big Deal
1. Dillon Maples – Armed with upper 90s stuff and a devastating slider, he is technically not going to be a prospect very much longer. 2017 saw him harness his physical and mental skills to perfection at Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, Iowa, and Chicago. He does have closer type stuff but will probably be treated with kid gloves his first full year in Chicago.
2. Dakota Mekkes – The 6’7″ reliever from Michigan State dominated two leagues in 2017. For 2017, he put up an ERA under one and struck out 92 hitters in 73.1 innings. His deceptive delivery makes a 91 to 93 mile an hour fastball seem more like 96 to 98. The ball just sneaks up and creates a rushed decision. It should be exciting to watch him go at it in AA Tennessee this year. If he can cut down on his walks, the big league club could be calling very soon.
3. Jake Stinnett – After missing four months at AA Tennessee, Stinnett returned late in the season in a relief role and appeared to be reborn as a pitcher. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and did very well against elite competition. He always struggled as a starter in his previous three seasons as a prospect. Coming out of the bullpen, I think his stuff plays up a little bit better as most of his pitches have some sort of wiffle ball type movement to them. Along with Mekkes, he is going to be an interesting prospect and test case to see how the Cubs deal with just what his role is going to be.
4. Corey Black – Something Jaron Madison said at the Cubs convention has stayed with me for the past two weeks. In talking about Corey, Madison mentioned an “emotional maturity” that seems to bode well for Corey’s future. Now at 26 years of age, Black should be on the precipice of making it to the majors as Madison spoke very highly of Black’s potential and Madison was high on Corey’s 4+ MLB type pitches. If that’s the case, Black could be a guy. Sometimes an injury can turn your career around for the better.
Been over a year since I’ve stepped on a mound but boy let me tell you that’s the most comfortable I’ve felt on the mound in a very long time.
— Corey Black (@CblackCHC) January 23, 2018
Who the Hell Is This Guy?
Jhon Romero flew under the radar in the second half of 2017. He began his season in June at Eugene and ended up in South Bend. After Maples and Mekkes, Romero was this relief pitcher I enjoyed watching the most in August. He can throw 93 to 95 and has a beautiful tight breaking ball that just devastated hitters. He struck out 53 hitters in 41 innings and opponents only hit .109 against him. He should be at Myrtle Beach to begin the year.
How much longer?
James Pugliese, Daury Torrez, Ryan McNeil, Tommy Nance, Jordan Minch, Tommy Thorpe, Kyle Miller, Craig Brooks, Scott Effross, and David Garner
What we have here are several relievers who have been in the organization for at least three years, some of them going on six years. Out of this bunch, Tommy Nance has the best stuff. He throws a hard ball in the mid 90s and breaks a lot of bats. Hopefully, he can return healthy in 2018. Two players who came on strong at some point last year were Scott Effross and David Garner. Effross will be at AA and Garner will be in AAA, along with a spring training invite.
Breakout Relievers for 2018
Jake Steffens, Ricky Tyler Thomas, and Ben Hecht all were outstanding for Eugene last summer coming out of the pen. All three were also draft picks from last year. Steffens is pretty good sized guy with a natural sinking fastball while Hecht was a strikeout machine for the Emeralds. To me, Thomas has the potential and pitches (plus changeup) to be a starter, just unsure about his frame. He might get a shot to stretch it out this year. For these three arms, pitching in the Northwest League is a different animal than the Midwest League. It is usually a pretty good barometer or a pitcher’s acumen.
If I was to pick one more arm, I would go with Ivan Medina who was Mesa’s closer. I am sure there will be an arm that does really well that I did not foresee. There always is.